By Ricky St. Germaine, grade 11, Lac Courte Oreilles
2008 Reconnecting The Circle Essay Winner
At a recent pow wow grand entry on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation in northern Wisconsin in 2007, the emcee recognized tribal members in the veteran’s honor guard, citing their military service to the Nation and their tribe. The emcee spoke eloquently of the sacrifice made by these veterans during years of service in places like Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. During the honor dance, he reminded the audience of Indian Country’s devotion to their Nation in times of international conflict. The grand entry felt good.
The pow wow emcee, Eddie Benton-Banai, later honored another group of American Indian veterans. He introduced a handful of Ojibwe Indian elders who took a stand in 1971, in defense of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, by protesting at the site of the Winter Dam against the corporation that flooded our reservation. Benton-Banai, an early founder of the American Indian Movement, reminisced about the courage of visionary tribal activists who challenged power generation corporate control of tribal lands (Benton-Banai).
“The take-over of the Winter Dam was a daring move by a small group of Lac Courte Oreilles members way back thirty-some years ago,” he stated, “because it told the power company, the BIA, and the State of Wisconsin that this tribe wasn’t going to let a multi-national corporation push us around anymore” (Benton-Banai). He related that the power company had manipulated the U.S. Congress in 1920 to condemn Lac Courte Oreilles tribal lands over tribal objections and then constructed a huge dam that inundated our lands, villages, and grave yards with a gigantic reservoir. The tribe was devastated.
The civil disobedience of tribal activists in 1971 sent a resounding public message that the flooding of our reservation during years of political impotence was not going to be tolerated and attempts by the power company to renew the lease of the flooded lands was not going to be done this time without a fight.
After the intervention of the Governor of Wisconsin, the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe began a lengthy negotiation process with the Northern States Power Company and a decade later signed an agreement that provided for a return of 3,000 acres of prime real estate land along the reservoir, an apology to the descendants of the evacuated Ojibwe, monetary compensation, and rights to build a power generation plant at the dam (Thayer).
In this case, it wasn’t the tribal government that generated inconceivable results, but instead a small group of reservation Indians who had watched and were emboldened by the Alcatraz take-over and the birth of AIM.
The pow wow emcee, Eddie Benton-Banai, reminded the large audience assembled that day that this pow wow celebration was started twenty-five years earlier in commemoration of the tribal civil disobedience that led to the resolution of the tragic flooding of our reservation lands. He didn’t state this at the time, but Benton-Banai often referred to tribal rights activists as “veterans” in defense of their sovereign nations.
A few years later, in 1974, two Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe brothers protested against what they believed was the illegal prohibition of hunting and fishing rights that were reserved by the Wisconsin Ojibwe in early 19th century treaties. They were taught in a university Indian law course that Wisconsin Ojibwe chiefs clearly held on to their property use rights even though they ceded, or gave up, their lands to the United States in treaty negotiations (GLIFWC, 26).
The brothers notified a Wisconsin game warden that they intended to spear fish through the ice in the customary fashion off the reservation and were arrested and convicted of violating a State game law (Whaley, 6-7). The Lac Courte Oreilles tribal government appealed their conviction in federal court which resulted in lengthy court legal proceedings that were appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with a final ruling in 1983 and again in 1996 (Satz, 94).
Following the 1983 ruling, opponents of the treaty rights mobilized thousands of protesters to gather at State regulated boat landings in attempts to physically stop Ojibwe Indians from exercising their treaty right spearfishing on dozens of small lakes in northern Wisconsin (Whaley, 28-29).
Ojibwe spearfishers took their lives into their own hands, so to speak, during the span of 1984-1990 walleye fish harvest time. The violence increased until the Wisconsin Governor called out hundreds of law enforcement officers from counties and cities around the State in the spring harvest season of 1989, to protect the Ojibwe from life threatening bloodshed.
My father, Rick St. Germaine, who was tribal chairman of Lac Courte Oreilles during the 1970s and 1980s, shared stories with me and my siblings of the hostility and brutality of the non-Indians against Ojibwe leaders and fishers. His life was threatened several times by anti-treaty rights advocates, who telephoned him at his home as a part of a campaign to intimidate tribal leaders into giving up their legal rights.
Ojibwe Indians who arrived at publicized boat landings were broadsided by rocks, wrist-rockets, and spit as they attempted to launch their boats into the lakes. With hundreds of angry protesters cursing vile epithets at the spearfishers, it took incredible courage and daring to face the mobs who each night were being held back and arrested by dozens of Wisconsin law enforcement officers. My father told me that, at times, the police sympathized with the protesters and looked the other way as protesters standing near them hurled rocks and sling shot ball-bearings at the Ojibwe fishers.
Federal Court Judge Barbara Crabb rejected Governor Tommie Thompson’s request for an injunction against the Ojibwe spearfishers in 1989 with a rebuke that it was his responsibility “to enforce the…rights of all people under the law” (Satz, 118). Judge Crabb further wondered from the bench what kind of world this would be had not brave African Americans stood up to the violent threats of protesters in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s?
Ojibwe Indian patriotism has best been exemplified by our military veterans and, indeed, common reservation activists who on numerous occasions placed their lives on the line to protect their lands and treaty rights for future generations of Ojibwe to enjoy. As Eddie Benton-Banai sometimes said, tribal rights activists have served as veterans in defense of their nation’s sovereignty.
Benton-Banai, Eddie. Honor the Earth Pow Wow, Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation, Hayward, Wisconsin. Master of Ceremony (Emcee). July 17, 2007.
Great Lakes Indian Fish &Wildlife Commission. Moving Beyond Argument Racism & Treaty Rights. GLIFWC:Odanah, Wisconsin. 1990.
Satz, Ronald N. Chippewa Treaty Rights. Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters: Madison. 1991.
Thayer, Gordon. Personal interview with the Tribal Government Vice Chairman (in 1985 at the time of the signed agreement). December 20, 2008.
Whaley, Rick, and Walter Bresette. Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racisim and for the Earth. Philadelphia: New Society, 1994.